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Tina Casey headshot

$85 Billion Takeover Crimps AT&T Response to Trump's Toxic Boy Scout Speech

By Tina Casey

Last week U.S. President Donald J. Trump upended decades of nonpartisan tradition by turning a Boy Scout jamboree into a campaign rally. The incident may have also violated rules that prohibit the organization from engaging in politics. A firestorm of protest erupted after the incident, but the national Boy Scouts of America organization has so far refrained from criticizing Trump's behavior directly. In addition, there has been no word from AT&T, whose CEO Randall Stephenson also happens to be president of the Boy Scouts of America.

The silence from AT&T is reasonable from a bottom line perspective, so now the question is whether or not Stephenson's business concerns have trickled over to influence the Boys Scouts response.

AT&T and the bottom line

AT&T has been building a CSR profile,  and it has been paying attention to energy and water resource issues as well as social issues, so it does have a platform upon which to criticize the President. However, the company is in a delicate position with respect to the President's policies.

Back in April, Fortune magazine described how AT&T stands to benefit from Trump's proposals:

The Trump administration proposed plans giving two big wins to the nation's largest communications companies on Wednesday.

Early in the day, the President proposed tax cuts that would make AT&T, Verizon and Comcast among the biggest winners of his plan. Later, his appointed head of the Federal Communications Commission proposed lifting so-called net neutrality rules that put limits on Internet service providers.

These two issues alone will have a consequential impact on the future of AT&T.

Now add the company's proposed $85 million takeover of Time Warner, and it becomes clear that AT&T has nothing to gain and everything to lose by antagonizing the Trump administration, or Trump personally.

Washington Post reporter Jena McGregor provides some insight (do read the full article for many more details):

AT&T is awaiting word on its proposed $85 billion takeover of Time Warner — putting Stephenson in a potentially difficult scenario as many parents and former Boy Scouts have called for an apology about Trump's speech.


The uproar is a particularly volatile example of a fundamentally new era, one in which polarization and social media help ensnare CEOs in political flash points, often prompting boycotts from customers. Leading the Boy Scouts, in different times, would hardly seem to have been a risk.

Trump criticized the proposed Time Warner takeover during his campaign last year but AT&T worked hard to get on his good side.

Stephenson praised Trump lavishly after Election Day last year, and the company was a big donor to the Trump presidential inauguration fund.

The effort seems to have paid off, and just last month Trump had kind words for Stephenson.

So, where are the Boy Scouts?

That explains the radio silence from AT&T. According to McGregor, AT&T is referring requests for comment to the Boy Scouts.

The comments are certainly not lacking from local Scout groups, Eagle Scouts, parents and other individuals involved in Scouting, who have reacted vigorously to Trump's speech at the jamboree.

The Boy Scouts national organization also issued a statement, but the organization did not criticize the President by name, and so far Stephenson himself has not commented.

The task of responding on behalf of the national Boy Scouts organization was left to Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh, who posted an open letter on the Boy Scouts website.

The letter deflects criticism away from the President by focusing attention on those who found the remarks offensive:

I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree...

In other words, the rhetoric was not offensive by any objective measure, but only insofar as some people were offended.

Rather than placing the responsibility for the political nature of the speech on Trump, the Boy Scouts also blame themselves for enabling their event to become politicized:

...We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

And, the letter makes it clear that the Boy Scouts were simply following tradition:

The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition and is in no way an endorsement of any political party of specific politics.”

The sitting U.S. President serves as the BSA’s honorary president. It is our long-standing custom to invite the U.S. President to the National Jamboree.

To be clear, even if the Boy Scouts did not share leadership personnel with AT&T, the President's behavior put it in a difficult position. The organization has evolved in recent years but its conservative image persists.

Criticizing a sitting president, no matter how unpopular, would be unprecedented for the Boy Scouts organization.

That puts the ball back in AT&T's court. All things being equal, it would not be unusual for the company to take a stand. Many other leading executives have argued forcefully against Trump and his administration over immigration, health insurance, climate change and public parks among other issues.

Nevertheless, Stephenson and AT&T have ample reason to hope that the controversy goes away all by itself.

Photo (cropped): Mike Mozart via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey